As I discuss the possibility of a checkoff for live, farm-raised Christmas trees with fellow growers, it seems that at the core of each discussion is “Why would you want the government involved in your business”? This is a very good question. After recent events like Hurricane Katrina, Healthcare Reform, Iraq and the Gulf Oil Spill, all events where our government did not make it’s best performance, it is easy to see why the concern. When we hear about those events, the visions that pop into our head are not of sugar plums. So, “Why let the government into the Christmas tree business”? I will try to explain and it will take more than a couple paragraphs, so please hang in there.
The draft that was sent to the USDA for approval has a clause in it referring to patents, copyrights trademarks, information, publications, and product formulations that states that these items “shall be the property of the U.S. Government as represented by the Board”. The truth is the Board runs the whole program. You may say, therefore, the Government…but be careful here. First we need to define the Board.
The Board, as we know it, will be the Checkoff Promotion and Research Board. This Board has not yet been established. It will be established as soon as a checkoff program is approved for implementation by USDA. How will that happen? It is proposed that each of the 30 existing state or multi-state tree grower associations will apply to become a Certified Producer Organization (CPO). It is further proposed that each CPO will select or appoint a grower from their peers to serve on a nominating committee. There will be 4 different nominating committees, one for the western region, one for the central, one for the eastern and one for the importer position. These various committees will meet and nominate, again from their peers, qualified growers or persons related to the industry. These nominees will need to be eligible to be assessed the checkoff. Two candidates will be nominated for each of the 12 positions available on the Board. From these candidates the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture will make the final choice for the members of the Board. The USDA wants board member diversity; they want every grower to be fairly represented.
Now we have a board that is appointed and overseen by USDA, hence the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Federally-authorized checkoff programs are “Government Speech”, but the board members are growers and producers just like you and me! The Government is only involved in an “oversight” capacity. The USDA will assure that all advertising is fair to the whole industry, that all monies collected are spent for the benefit of the whole industry and that the programs that are initiated by the Board are worthwhile. The Board and USDA will periodically be required to provide an opportunity for Christmas tree growers to determine if this program is providing value back to the growers who are being assessed the checkoff . In other words, assessed growers will be able to pass judgment on whether or not the checkoff program’s efforts have improved the value of the live, farm-raised Christmas tree in the market place. This is good.
Recently the United Soybean Board (USB) was investigated by USDA’s Office of Inspector General only to find that they were completely on track. They did however ask the Board to utilize a different system of accounting practices. More than 18 months ago, some leaders of another soybean industry organization had expressed concern that USB may have been misusing some checkoff funds. USB was completely exonerated by USDA for all of the allegations. However, this investigation demonstrates the Government was there to protect the soybean farmer.
A similar instance brought the beef checkoff to the headlines. In this case, a third-party audit commissioned by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (the beef checkoff board appointed by USDA) found that its primary contractor may have utilized some checkoff dollars for lobbying efforts instead of for promotion, which is not allowed for any Federally-authorized checkoff program. Please keep in mind that these two checkoff programs collect over $60 million each year. The live Christmas tree checkoff program is projected to raise $2-$3 million per year.
In both of these cases the Government was there to protect the small farmer, not to hurt him. But when these checkoffs are in the news they are portrayed negatively which potentially gives the readers a bad taste for all checkoff programs. That “bad taste” may evolve into an opposition to anything that involves the Government. Once again, let me state that this program will be run by tree growers, not government officials. The monies collected will be paid directly to the Board and they will be spent by the Board. Only a small oversight fee will be remitted to the USDA. The Board will select an advertising firm or professional promotional group that will work to improve the image of the farm-grown Christmas tree. This we really need now more than ever.
Many states, Minnesota included, are trying to raise monies for promotion and research. This has been very difficult to do as these programs rely on voluntary contributions and those are slow in coming. I have personally donated to Minnesota’s development of a promotional DVD. I saw it playing at the Minnesota State Fair. That was great. But this could be used at every state fair in the nation. And it could be a cost that is shared by every tree grower. That’s the point of a checkoff…to get more growers engaged in the cost of promotion, not just a few. I applaud the efforts of those who donate time, effort and money for the benefit of our industry but, will they always consistently be there?
Now, back to my second paragraph. In a recent article in the Wisconsin Quarterly Journal, Jeffrey Owen, Extension Forest Specialist, North Carolina State University wrote about Christmas tree preservatives. He found that after extensive studies of eight different products recommended to be put in the tree stand water to help hold the needles on your tree, all failed to make an improvement, instead they did more harm than good. Some of these products are being sold by Christmas tree growers and they are causing the needles to fall off! Think about that.
This brings up 2 points. First, how do we spread this information out to every grower? Where do the funds come from? Who gets it done? Who follows up to make sure consumers know the best way to care for a farm-raised tree once it has been cut and placed in a stand? One answer would be the Checkoff Board, if we had one. And the second point; what if there was a product out there that could be put in the water of a balsam to make it hold needles like a Fraser. What if it just hasn’t been found yet? What if it would revolutionize and eliminate the whole “messy needle” argument? If that ever happens I want the benefits to go to our industry. A Checkoff Board might be able to help. Think of the benefits that we might reap from the discovery of a product that really worked. Will we ever know? There are so many things that could be done on a nationwide scale to improve the image of the real Christmas tree. Fifty percent of Americans still think a fake tree is better for the environment! We know that purchasing a real tree is better for our environment, our economy and our family values and traditions. But to convince the public is going to take a significant effort and we can’t do that alone. We need to consider the strength of numbers. There are almost 20,000 tree growers nationwide. Let’s work together on this through a checkoff program.
When arguing for the Erie Canal, it was New York Governor Dewitt Clinton’s greatest fear that all the years of study and preparation might be lost. That the life-long efforts and dreams of so many statesmen might not be realized, that the project might be seen as too large and costly and the opportunity for this accomplishment might never come again. Well, there are those of us that feel the same way about a checkoff for the Christmas tree industry. There was an unsuccessful attempt to implement one 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then. Now, many growers who see the need have made a substantial commitment. An extensive amount of research was conducted. Meetings have been attended and discussions have taken place. Numerous articles have been written, thousands of phone calls have been made. A substantial monetary contribution has been given by a few for the benefit of the whole. It is my fear that if we are not successful this time, it will not happen in my lifetime. We really need to seriously consider the value of an industry wide promotional program now before it’s too late.
Paul L Schroeder
Member, Christmas Tree Checkoff Task Force